July 16, 2011

Harte: a snug little cottage

The July 16, 1864 issue of the Californian included a short sketch by Bret Harte entitled "Fixing Up an Old House." The light-hearted tale depicts a new home-owner who begins fixing up his new cottage. His attempts at hanging wall-paper and painting the walls, however, nearly end in disaster and he resorts to hiring professionals.

Harte was among the first contributors to the Californian, writing at the behest of its founding editor Charles Henry Webb (though both were born New Yorkers). In the weekly journal, he often published satirical pieces which criticized California society. Webb and Harte both disliked the type of local color writing that was prevalent in the west at the time and, as such, the Californian did not include pioneer tales or frontier fiction. In fact, Harte's writings began to avoid common tropes of fiction entirely — a modern reader will find little content in "Fixing Up an Old House."

Still, the sketch includes the kind of straight-faced humor that made Harte so unique (this kind of smart humor also drew Mark Twain as a contributor to the publication). From "Fixing Up an Old House":

When I had secured the possession of my new home, and stood in its doorway, thoughtfully twirling the key in my hand, the words of the retiring tenant struck me with renewed intensity and vigor. "It's a snug little cottage," he had said, confidentially, "and a cheap rent — but it wants to be painted and papered bad." 'As I looked around it, I could not help thinking that one of these requirements had already been met — that it had been "papered bad," and that its present ragged, torn, and dirty walls looked better now than they must have looked in the primal horrors of their original paper. 

The narrator's initial thought is to do the clean-up work himself, though his wife suggested otherwise, implying not that they needed to save money, but that he had plenty of free time; the narrator is, in fact, a writer:

"You know that you're —" But she did not proceed any further in this feminine attempt to associate my literary habits with this branch of upholstering, and only said: "You might do it after office hours instead of writing, and you 'd save money by it."

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